Johannes Brahms | Biography

Biography

Brahms is a composer of two faces: he simultaneously looks back to the musical past and gazes forward into its future. Reviving and enlarging the classical principles of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, his music was once dismissed as conservative, a reaction against the ‘new music’ of Liszt and Wagner. Yet his astonishing powers of motivic development and variation would eventually influence Schoenberg. Brahms blended Beethovenian dynamism, Schubertian lyricism, a love of German folk song and the strict contrapuntal mastery of the Baroque into a synthesis of phenomenal richness. His example was as vital as Wagner’s in the creation of the music of the modern era. A child of the Romantic era, Brahms combined the movement’s key principles of Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Stress’) with an understanding of Classical structure. He had a deep knowledge of Baroque style — particularly the works of Schütz, Gabrieli and Handel — a rare interest for a composer of this period, and a profound respect for tradition. In 1895 a festival in the German town of Meiningen was devoted to ‘the three B’s’: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms'. Like Beethoven, Brahms was a North German who based himself in Vienna, and remained a bachelor even though he was the centre of a large circle of musical friends. Born in a slum district of the north German city of Hamburg, the son of a town musician and a seamstress, he grew up studying the music of JS Bach with local piano teachers and playing the piano in dockside bars to augment the family’s income. His first journey away from home was a concert tour of North Germany as accompanist to the violinist Eduard Rémenyi. This tour had huge consequences, bringing Brahms into contact with Liszt, the friendship of the violinist, conductor and composer Joseph Joachim, and an introduction to Robert Schumann, who arranged for the publication of Brahms’s compositions. Schumann immediately announced in print the arrival of a supreme genius ‘destined to give the highest expression to the times’, a declaration taken with a pinch of salt by most of his contemporaries. Schumann’s madness and suicide attempt a few months later left Brahms bereft of both a patron and father-figure, yet allowed him to take on the role of protector to Schumann’s wife Clara, to whom he was profoundly attached for the rest of his life. Brahms was a solitary, difficult man with a powerful need for friendship. Among his most significant relationships were those with Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. Fourteen years his senior, Clara represented a romantic ideal of womanhood and was one of the most gifted pianists of the century. Though scholars believe they were never lovers, the two remained very close after Schumann’s death in 1856. Clara’s advocacy both as performer and as Schumann’s widow helped to make Brahms’s music widely known, identifying him in the public eye as the elder composer’s successor. Relations with the touchy and jealous Joachim were more difficult, but he helped the young Brahms to gain confidence and did much to promote his music. Brahms wrote several works for him, notably the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. After a court appointment in Detmold and choral conducting in Hamburg, Brahms settled in Vienna in the 1860s. The lack of recognition he found in Hamburg contrasted with the warm welcome of Vienna and such new friends as the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. He served for short periods as musical director of the Singakademie and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde; but otherwise lived as a freelance composer, making occasional concert tours with friends and teaching selected piano pupils. He was now accumulating a considerable fortune through such popular works as the Hungarian Dances and Waltzes for piano duet — ideal material for the domestic music-making of the 19th century. Brahms was deeply affected by his mother’s death in 1865, and his major choral work Ein deutsches Requiem (‘A German Requiem’), its texts from Luther’s Bible, was written partly in her memory and partly in memory of Schumann. First performed in Bremen in 1868, and soon heard throughout Europe, it laid the foundation of Brahms’s international reputation. From the time of his Symphony no. 1 (completed in 1876) his place in musical life was assured. Schumann had prophesied in 1853 that Brahms would be pre-eminent in symphonic forms, but the young composer was diffident about coming before the public with a symphony. Liszt, Wagner and their supporters felt Beethoven had already said all that could be said in this, the grandest of orchestral forms, so the eventual appearance of Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 in 1876, after a long and difficult gestation going back to the early 1860s, was a major event. In many respects an ‘answer to Beethoven’, The First Symphony is an intensely dramatic work in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth. The great C major tune of the finale, and the trombones' suggestion of a chorale, are overtly Beethovenian. But Brahms blends his tribute with Romantic imagery taken from nature — the finale’s horn call, imitating an Alpine shepherd’s horn. Reinterpreting Beethovenian ideas from a later perspective, the work was hailed by some critics as ‘the Tenth Symphony’, the successor to Beethoven’s Ninth. In fact, this confrontation with Beethoven’s musical legacy enabled Brahms to attempt on a more personal and individual style of writing in his three remaining symphonies. These proved more lyrical and elegiac and, in the passacaglia finale of the Fourth Symphony, revived structural principles derived from the music of JS Bach. As well as the Requiem, the four symphonies and the concertos, including the two monumental piano concertos, Brahms wrote a large body of choral, chamber and piano music, and over two hundred songs. Though he excelled in the great public and virtuoso forms, an intimacy of expression may be felt even in his largest works, and came to prominence in his last years, with small-scale piano pieces and the autumnal Clarinet Quintet. He wrote no opera, and his work stands at the opposite extreme to Wagner’s music-dramas. In Brahms’s works, music itself becomes drama.